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Niels Helsloot Niels Helsloot


Niels Helsloot, 'Who are the happy few? Judith Butler's constructive desire'.
Translation by Johan van Es.
(pp. 179-180)
© 2004



There are only two obvious answers to the title question, or at least to its original version [*] which could be read both as 'Who is the fortunate one?' and 'Who is so happy?'. One could answer by naming someone who has won a prize, or one could answer with the name of someone who is going to be married. And perhaps both answers amount to the same: perhaps the marriage partner is the ultimate prize to be won. Happiness is thus the result of winning such a prize. Clearly the winners are few. Even if extra-marital prizes are presented as well, this conception of happiness has the disadvantage of leaving precious little room for those who miss the prize, or decline it. At best, such unhappy persons are left to a hopeless desire.
   Such 'losers' are central to the work of Judith Butler. Butler is Professor of Rhetoric and Comparative Literature at the University of California at Berkeley. At the end of the seventies, early eighties, she studied at Heidelberg and Yale, where she applied herself to the continental tradition in philosophy. Against the background of German idealism, specifically Hegel, she studied phenomenology, hermeneutics, and the work of the Frankfurter Schule. As she admits in a later foreword to her dissertation Subjects of Desire, she did not claim as part of her field of interest the so-called post-structuralism which came into fashion at the time (1999a: vii). The established canon of continental philosophy did not stretch much further than Jean-Paul Sartre and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Once Butler had finished her dissertation in 1984, discussions related to femininist studies aroused her fascination with 'post-structuralists' such as Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault and Jacques Lacan. This imparted a decisive flavour to her work of the next few years. Her best known books are Gender Trouble (which appeared in 1990), Bodies that Matter (1993) and The Psychic Life of Power (1997).
   Butler designed no theory of happiness. Her opinions are however highly relevant to this theme. I give an overview of her work to later examine certain passages where the term happiness occurs. These offer an unexpected answer to my question about the few bearers of happiness.

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   *   This article appeared in Dutch as 'Wie is de gelukkige?, Het constructieve verlangen van Judith Butler, in: Mariėtte Willemsen and Loes Derksen, eds., Wat maakt gelukkig? Hedendaagse filosofische visies, Amsterdam: Atlas 2004, 179-202"

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